This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

MIT Propaganda Machine

No doubt, many of you have heard of the recent “MIT Breakthrough”TM which provides a dramatic new way to store solar energy. Using a simple catalyst consisting of cobalt and phosphate, Daniel Nocera has supposedly removed the biggest road block holding back mass utilization of solar power. This story has been making its way through the web and the blogosphere for several days now and since I’m not an electrochemist, I’m not sure how much more I could add. However, my first reaction after reading the article was a sense of annoyance, and I found myself becoming more irked every time I read another article on the “breakthrough.” Part of my irknessTM was due to the authors themselves. I’m not sure how much information MIT released to the press, but several of the writers really had no clue about what the invention really was or why it was novel. Perhaps I'm a poor reader, but it required reading several articles before I was even sure exactly what Nocera had and had not done.

Irksome point #1. The constant references to solar energy, despite the fact that this catalyst has nothing to do with solar energy per se. The invention makes the electrolysis of water more efficient, nothing more. Nocera hopes that one day his invention may work in conjunction with solar power, using electrolytically generated hydrogen as an energy storage material, but right now, it doesn’t really have that much to do with solar energy, despite MIT's press release.

Irksome point #2. Many of the article writers appeared to be unfamiliar with the process of electrolysis, marveling at the novelty of being able to electrolyze water at room temperature. Hmmmm, I vaguely seem to recall hooking up a battery to salt water back in high school. Why wasn’t I referenced in these articles? The problem is that the efficiency of electrolysis is poor under these conditions, which I believe is due to the overpotential required when generating gases. (Please let me know if I am mistaken here.) Commercial electrolysis devices have been around for awhile, although to keep the efficiencies high, they are often run at high temperatures and pressures, using expensive electrodes and basic solutions. The novelty of Nocera’s breakthrough is that the cobalt-phosphate material allows for higher efficiencies at room temperature using cheaper materials.

Irksome point #3. The Scientific American writer who referred to both cobalt and phosphate as metals needs a refresher course in chemistry.

Irksome point #4. The MIT press machine set off the BS (Blatant Statement) meter way too often for my taste. Nocera didn’t do himself any favors either, with quotes like:

“This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years"

I've gotten rid of all the goddamn [power] grids."
Probably not during your lifetime, Daniel.

"Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."
Sorry, but as I understand it, one of the big problems with solar power is the low conversion efficiency of sunlight into electricity. This invention does nothing to solve that problem.

Irksome point #5. I don’t really have one, but I really wanted to use “irk” as many times as possible. I’ll probably never use the word again.

Snarkier blog posts on this subject can be found here and here.


Jons said...

I read the paper when this all hit the press and was, to put it mildly, underwhelmed. I mean sure its neat, but the news was making it sound like a magic bullet to save any impending energy woes overnight.

Tying this electrode in to the promises of a hydrogen economy, solar power, and all that just looks like a blatant PR grab.

sol said...

It is not as big as they claim, true. But your criticism is not right:

Point 1: It has to do with solar energy. In Photosystem II, Manganese is transferred to a higher oxidation state until it is Mn +IV and can split water. As far as the mechanism is understood, this catalyst does the same with cobalt.

And it could be used especially for artificial photosynthesis as this catalyst requires very low currents (starting from 5mev/cm2) compared to all other approaches.

We here at ANU, Canberra, will try to use this catalyst for our protein engineering work mimiking photosynthesis.

Point 2: Indium is expensive.

Point 3: True

Point 4: Who needs electricity if he can use hydrogen? Ok, fair enough, most approaches do use electricity. But the true problems are very diverse. From too expensive raw materials, too low effiency in capturing, storing, conversion...

Chemist Ken said...

Thanks for the comments, Sebastian.

As far as Point 1 is concerned, I realize that it may have some mechanistic similarity to Photosystem II, but from a practical standpoint the only connection right now seems to be that this breakthrough just offers yet another way to store energy. I'm not denying its importance, I just think MIT pushed the solar energy aspect too hard. However, as you pointed out, this catalyst might allow you to use solar conversion processes that cannot work with current electrolysis devices.

Yes, indium is expensive and the supply will supposedly be exhausted within 10 years according to a report I mentioned in my July 9th posting. I'm sure the companies making electrolyzing devices are VERY interested.

Point 4. Yes, I agree. The problems are numerous. It will take many breakthroughs before solar power really takes off.

Ψ*Ψ said...

The SciAm slipup doesn't surprise me at all. I gave up on reading general science magazines because there's ZERO chemistry understanding. Even SEED, which is usually OK, screwed up in an astrochemistry article and placed Na between O and Ne. D'OH!

Anonymous said...

Long time since college chemistry, but isn't Cobalt Phosphate only SLIGHTLY soluble in H2O??? What would happen if you mixed Cobalt Phosphate and dilute Sodium Hudroxid??? (KOH, NaOH is being used as the electrolyte in most of the HHO auto boosters with stainless steel electrodes.)

J M Carr said...

While the relevance of the chemistry may be a moot point (insofar as solar energy is concerned), there is a large principle that is being applied to this research: the principle of the almighty dollar.

Whether or not researchers purposely chose to report their findings now does not distract from the fact that their timing couldn't be any better. As governmental funding begins to dry up (i.e. NSF, maybe DOE), the current trend appears to be the creation of better ways to shake leaves from the money tree. Combine this effect with the current state of the US (election year where hot topics include energy) and attach terms to a seminal paper like "solar energy" and "hydrogen," and private investors and alumni alike will come running with money for the Universtiy.

Anonymous said...

My limited understanding was that they had a patent for a material that was made of cobalt phosphate and coating the electrode. i am going to definitely check on using cobalt phosphate in my Hoffman apparatus

gruvr said...

Can anyone tell me what this Cobalt electrolyte formulation likely is? I don't think it's Cobalt Phosphate - the videos describe using Cobalt and Phosphate Buffer (solution).
It's supposed to be 'green' and PH neutral. Intuition says there should be multiple ways to get a similar effect if we're mimic an organic process. What would Cobalt and TSP (trisodium Phosphate) do as an electrolyte?